Jimmy Herring: Talkin' Blues, Bluegrass and More
The spark of bringing together unusual combinations, like a classically trained bluegrass fiddler, a Cameroonian bassist, and a high energy guitarist, could have resulted in a musical culture clash, but for Jimmy Herring the bet paid off. While he might be modest and deferential on a personal level, his latest album is bold and expansive. It reveals a musician and composer comfortable tackling a wide array of styles and moods.
"I thought of the studio itself an instrument, and I wanted to see what it was capable of and not worry about doing it live," that's how Jimmy Herring described his approach to his 2008 debut album, Lifeboat when we spoke in 2011. That same attitude, coupled with the willingness of his label, Abstract Logix, to trust his artistic vision, hire a gifted producer, and bring together world class guest musicians from extraordinarily diverse backgrounds, is the genesis of Subject To Change Without Notice (Abstract Logix, 2012,) his recently released tour de force.
All About Jazz: I was struck by how wide-ranging and dissimilar the musical styles are on this album, and yet it is so cohesive and has this organic feel. It's much more than just a collection of interesting tunes. So I'm curious if you have the feeling that you achieved something special this time out?
Jimmy Herring: When you're this close to it, it's hard to know, but you're hoping for something like that. I just know that John Keane, who produced this album, is someone I've wanted to work with for a long time. I did work with him on an album he produced for Widespread Panic, and he's a friend of mine.
So when I went in to talk to him, I had most of the music, and clearly this was going to be something completely different, so I asked him, "John do you ever coproduce records?" He said, "Yeah man, I would be up for that."
But the longer I talked to him about it, the more I realized I didn't want to coproduce the album. I wanted him to produce it, but I wanted the final say on my own performances. When you work with producers they sometimes make you keep stuff that you know you can do better.
Of course sometimes they have to do that because the artist will drive them out of their mind trying to make things perfect. So I said, "Look John, I don't want any production credit on this record, I'm not the producer, I want you to produce, but please let me have the final say about my own performances." He said, "Sure, we can do that."
He was very patient with me, and he let me do things the way I wanted to do them. But at the same time, he produced the record, and he was an invaluable catalyst for many of the performances on this record. He helped me put things together and I bounced ideas off of him. Whenever I would hit a wall, he had all kinds of great suggestions to help me get out of the rut I was facing.
So I knew we had something fairly special because I know how good he is, and I know how good the other musicians on this project are. But at one point I was a little worried because he said, "Man, you know every song on this album is coming from a completely different place."
JH: Thank you, but strangely enough it wasn't intentional, it just happened that way. When it came time to choose the order of the songs, I started looking at them and thinking about the order. I did it one way, using the tempo. I didn't want to have two songs following each other with the same tempo. And I did it another way, by style-I didn't want to have two funk tunes, or two jazz tunes, or two simply singer-songwriter type tunes right next to each other. And interestingly, it ended up being about the same order each time. It only took me five minutes to figure out the order of the songs.
It wasn't intended, but we ended up jumping genres each time. John didn't think there was anything bad about that, he just pointed it out to me. It's weird, it was just happening subconsciously, and it kind of sums up the way we look at music. Which is, we just don't look at music in terms of labels-it's all music. It didn't seem important to make this a rock record, or a jazz record, or a guitar record, or a saxophone record or whatever. We just like music, and I guess that's where this was coming from.
AAJ: That's interesting, because when I listened to it and heard how diverse it was in mood and style, I thought it was fitting that you did a cover from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967). Like your album, that album has all these wildly different songs from all over the place, and yet it has this cohesive, totally organic feel. Both albums had great producers who are also musicians, so it is really fascinating to learn that is just kind of happened that way. What did you learn from John Keane making this record?
JH: One important thing was just to trust him. In fact, working with him on the Widespread Panic album I had learned to trust him, so that's why I came back to him. They had already made several records with him and I was impressed with his style of production.
He would ask me to try something that I didn't know I was capable of, and normally I might have said, "Man that's crazy, I'm not doing that." But I've learned to trust him. For instance, on the song "Kaleidoscope Carousel" he wanted me to go into the room with the amp and do some long sustaining feedback notes, and he wanted me to ignore the harmony. You know, when the harmony moves, my tendency is to move with it. You spend a lot of your time as a musician developing so you can make the changes, but he would say, "Jimmy, just try ignoring the harmony, you know when the chords move, don't move with them, just stay where you are."
I said, "Ignore the harmony, I don't know if I can do that, but I'll try." But he had a vision I wasn't aware of. So he had me record five or six guitar tracks where I was just holding long notes and not paying attention to the harmony. I didn't realize he was planning on playing all of them at the same time. So I took a different approach on each one and then I came back into the control room and he played all six of them at the same time. I thought, whoa, this sounds like a bizarre symphony of guitars. Every note of it was improvised, and I had no notion of what he was up to. So that's the intro to "Kaleidoscope Carousel."
AAJ: That's beautiful, I wondered how you got that sound. And you know what else grabbed me about that song, towards the end there are some sections where your guitar sounds so much like a blues harp, like you're channeling Little Walter or something. Is that something you were shooting for?
JH: In a way I had been shooting for that, I'd been experimenting with the tremolo arm on the Stratocaster-of course Jeff Beck is the king that, but I'd been experimenting with that for a while. I'd found these things that kind of sounded like slide guitar, but I hadn't used it on my last record.
But about two-and-half or three years ago, I started experimenting with the twang bar on the guitar and found these little things that kind of sound like harmonica, and they started creeping into my improvisations. Sometimes it sounded like slide guitar, sometimes like harmonica, and now and then you might hear something that sounds like bagpipes.
Of course, after listening to Derek Trucks for all these years, some of his influence would start creeping in, as would Duane Allman, Elmore James, Little Walter, Snooky Pryor, and some of the other great harmonica players. Even Billy Gibbons, the stuff he did on the early ZZ Top records where he'd take a harmonica solo-these types of things just start creeping in.
So I'd found these little things, and the end of the song seemed like the best place to use them. I think I took two solos at the end of that song, and John Keane and I used parts of both of them.
AAJ: Also, there's a similar kind of thing on "Aberdeen" I wanted to ask you about. There are a couple of places on that song where your guitar sounds uncannily like a human voice, again, am I reading too much into that, or where you shooting for that?
JH: I was definitely shooting for that. That was a conscious thing. All of the melody parts were done on a Telecaster and I didn't have a twang bar on that, but the solo in the middle I used a Stratocaster twang bar on it, and I was going for a gospel singer. You know, singers like Mahalia Jackson and Susan Tedeschi-because I've been around Susan and heard her sing a lot, I'm sure when I was playing that, in the back of my mind I was drawing on that influence.
The twang bar on the guitar really helps you go to a more vocal place because it can kind of make the frets disappear, and at times you come off sounding more like a singer. Sometimes, a harp player, or a slide guitarist. You know, "Within You Without You" was done the same way, but they all sound different.
AAJ: Let me ask you something totally different about the very first track, "Red Wing Special." There is something really special about Western swing, to me it's almost like a mirror image of blues. It's every bit as intense, but instead of being aggressive and raunchy, it's sweet and happy.
JH: Absolutely, yeah I see that.
AAJ: That's got to be a blast to play, but keeping that swing moving seems like a real challenge?
JH: Well yes, but you're spelling the chord changes with the improvisation-just like in jazz, with the change it goes to a different scale. So my goal is to be able to spell the chord changes with the lines that I'm playing during the improvisation.
So this is a basic blues with a turnaround. It's coming more from a minor 6th blues as opposed to a dominant blues, which I'm more comfortable doing.
But that little tune came into my head, and once I wrote the tune I thought, I can't really improvise over this, I going to have to spend a lot of time shedding these chord changes, and approaching playing over these chord changes.
The idea is-it's not a Dixieland kind of tune or anything, but some years ago I really got into Pete Fountain, a brilliant clarinetist from New Orleans. Their approach to playing blues, the type blues they do, it's not about the dominant 7th like it is with the kind of blues I grew up learning. It's more about the 6th than it is the flat 7th and it's a whole other kind of blues.
So I remember learning several of Pete Fountain's progressions and lines some years ago and that's were some of that tune came from.
AAJ: And you had Nicky Sanders, a classically trained violinist who studied jazz and plays bluegrass, and a Cameroonian bassist, it's pretty wild! And Jeff Snipes' brush work is beautiful.
JH: Oh yeah, that is masterful! He blew us all away.
AAJ: I have a hard time picking a favorite on this album, because it changes with my mood. But I'll tell you, as a big B3 fan, the song "12 Keys" is wonderful, and Matt Slocum's playing is fantastic. Did he transcribe those duets you did together, they're so intricate? I love that, it's so light and airy.
JH: Thank you so much. Oh man, Matt is incredible. We were playing that originally as a sketch to improvise on, and I hadn't written a head for it. We would play the chord progression and then take solos over it, and we recorded that as a sketch.
But as we got ready to record it, I knew I had to write a head for it. So I got together with John Keane and did three takes improvising over the progression. We then narrowed down three pieces from those improvisations, and I ended up writing a head based on them. Then I recorded the head and sent it to Matt, which he then learned note-for-note. A couple of days later he came back to the studio and recorded his part, basically doubling with me. Of course his solo is totally his creation.
AAJ: When we spoke last year I don't know what possessed me to ask you about Telecasters and chicken pickers, but I thought that was cool that you shared so many insights, and then all the sudden I hear "Curfew," and you kind of paid tribute to the things you'd talked about-and did it with Béla Fleck. That's so much fun, and his lines are so original.
JH: Béla Fleck is in a class my himself. He's taken the banjo into completely uncharted territory so many times. And really, if I'd had the opportunity and he had been free I would have loved to have had him play on a lot more tracks. But I'll definitely be calling him back to play on things that aren't typical bluegrass or country, because that guy can play anything.
When I called him I said, "I've got this little hillbilly jazz tune, it's like a country tune, but it's got jazz harmony in it at times. It's got changes in it you've gotta play, but it definitely has got a country attitude, would you be interested?" And he says, "Hell yeah I'd be interested!"
I had to send him the file because he wasn't available to record with us at the same time we recorded. He was in another state somewhere on tour, so when he had a day off he went to a studio somewhere, I think it was in Vermont.
It was the same with Bill Evans [saxophone], and Nicky Sanders [fiddle/violin], they had to play their parts in a different town and send them back to me. I hate that, but I'm also grateful, because if it weren't for that technology I wouldn't have been able to play with those guys.
AAJ: In another way it's kind of nice for you too, because when you record you've heard everything so many times, but in these cases you get a bit of the surprise and excitement that the fans get when they hear it.
JH: Yeah man, that's true, because the heads were written and the peoples' solo spaces were open and allotted for, and I knew the track was there. They are all such consummate pros, it was wonderful listening to the playback.
We laughed so hard when Fleck sent his track back to me and we listened to it for the first time, we just fell on the floor laughing because it had so much personality. His spirit is so playful and wonderful, he brought so much fun to that track. He was so clever, he knocked us all out, we loved it!
AAJ: When we spoke last year, you described your commitments for 2012 and it sounded like it would be impossible for you to put something out this year. So when I read that you were working on a new albums, I thought what a blessing when an artist has the right person behind him taking care of business. I'm guessing Souvik Dutta must have gone all out to make this happen?
JH: Oh man, he is the M.V.P. of everything he is involved in. You know, the word "no" is not in his vocabulary. He will do whatever it takes to make things happen. I love that guy, and without him this would never have happened.
AAJ: I think Derek Trucks also has that same kind of thing with his manager, Blake Budney. That's great you guys have people behind you who also get your music and believe in your artistic vision.
JH: Absolutely, and Blake is incredible too. I've known Blake for, good lord-I knew Blake when he was loading the truck and driving the van from gig to gig for Derek. So I've known him a long time. So Derek and I are both really fortunate in that respect.
AAJ: I should mention another musician on the album who caught my attention. A young cat named Carter Herring who plays cello. Where did you find him?
JH: [Laughing] He was in the basement! Carter is a very talented kid. He started playing cello probably in the sixth grade, and he took to it really fast. But to be honest, he doesn't play the cello much anymore, but on those songs we had him on, "Within You and Without You," and "Hope," I'd talked to him about it long before we recorded them. I told him, "One day I want to record this and get you to play cello on it."
But the truth is, he lost interest in playing the cello, and started playing the guitar. You know there were a lot more guitars around the house than cellos! So he really got into Cornell Dupree and Albert King. He loves blues, R&B, James Brown and funk, so he started getting into that and playing guitar all the time. So he kind of put the cello down, but he picked it up again to do this recording. And he immediately put it down after the recording, I don't think he's touched it since, in fact the cello is still sitting in the dining room right by the front door!
But he does a really good job, if he wanted to pursue the cello he could have gone a long way with it. He had a real natural gift with it, almost right out of the gate he was getting the things you look for: good tone, good time, and his vibrato was nice. But he just sort of lost interest, because I think the cello was something he associated with school. He started playing cello as a member of the orchestra at school, and you know how is it with playing in a school orchestra-they have a narrow view of music. It's about classical music and that's it.
We talked about this when he began playing the cello, I told him, "Don't get discouraged by the narrow minds of some of the people you're going to encounter. They are going to try and tell you that jazz is inferior to classical music," of course not everybody, you know what I'm saying. Like the conductor of the orchestra at school thought he was so gifted and that he should be taking private lessons.
So we got him started on private lessons with a cello teacher, and the teacher was really great, but also narrow minded. They didn't want him listening to funk, R&B, and blues, and even went to far as to ask him in an accusative way, "You've been listening to jazz and R&B, haven't you?" And Carter would say, "Yeah, I listen to all music, that and Stravinsky too."
It really bummed him out, and he quit the private lessons. He grew up around all these musicians who basically taught themselves how to play, and he wants to do it that way too. He won't ask me, and I don't teach him anything. But he's got the ear, and if you've got the ear you can teach yourself to play, it's just that simple.
He's doing that. You know, he's playing guitar on a lot of gigs around town and people will ask me, "What did you show Carter? You showed him this or that, right?" I tell them, "Look, I haven't shown him anything, except a few chords and scale fingerings." He learned from that and started teaching himself, and the kid is playing his little butt off- he's on his way. I'm proud of him.
AAJ: It's also interesting too that your daughter is so artistic. Someone from your PR team asked me if I wanted your new album as a CD or MP3, and I told them, CD because I love the artwork, as I did with Lifeboat. She said, "Did you know Jimmy's daughter Cameron did the artwork for the new CD, and she also collaborated on the artwork for Lifeboat?" That blew me away, I love both of them.
JH: Oh yeah, she did that. She's a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. It's a really good school and she's a senior this year. She's gotten into abstract painting and she had several pieces that could have been the album cover, and that's the one she thought would be best, and I said, "Great, I like that one. Let's use that." She's into a lot of different things, she's into portraits, realism with great detail, but she's also into abstract art-so it's kind of how it is around here musically.
She loves art, just like I love music, from [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman and [keyboardist] Sun Ra to [guitarist] Roy Buchanan or [woodwind multi- instrumentalist] Paul McCandless-gospel music all the way to abstract jazz, it's all just great music, and that's the way she feels about art.
Jimmy Herring, Subject to Change Without Notice (Abstract Logix, 2012)
Various Artists, The New Universe Music Festival: Abstract Logix Live! (Abstract Logix, 2011)
Jimmy Herring, Lifeboat (Abstract Logix, 2008)